by Dan Loch
The First Reading from Ezekiel sets up a sort of “rejected prophet” theme to this Sunday’s readings. The Lord instructs the prophet Ezekiel that he is to stand by his message even though it will be rejected by a rebellious people. In the second reading Paul reveals he has a “thorn in the flesh” that remained despite all his prayers to God to take it away. It must have been something well-known, since he expected his Corinthian audience to know what he was talking about, maybe a physical deformity or a speech impediment. Whatever it was, the important thing is that the “thorn” that God would not take away became key to Paul’s spirituality. Faced with a seemingly permanent “thorn in the flesh,” we learn that “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul sucked it up and kept on going, as Ezekiel did.
Then when we get to the Gospel Jesus is rejected by his hometown. First, let’s get the “brothers and sisters of Jesus” shocker out of the way. The reference to the brothers and sisters of Jesus has caused a lot of fast-and-furious arguments. Were these brothers and sisters the younger children of Mary and Joseph? Joseph’s children by an earlier marriage? Adopted children of Mary and Joseph? Foster children? Whoa! Relax. They were actually cousins of Jesus. The problematic “brother” and “sister” words came about because of translating the Gospel from one language to another. The original Aramaic words were translated into the Greek word for brothers and sisters, or “brethren.”
You ever have one of those days when nothing goes right? That’s what Jesus is going through in this Gospel. We usually think Jesus was super successful, able to leap tall building in a single bound, do everything he was supposed to do. Heck, in the previous chapter of Mark, Jesus had just cured a demon-possessed man, healed a woman afflicted with bleeding for twelve years, and raised a little girl from the dead. Not too shabby a day’s work. Then we get this story to start the very next chapter.
Jesus returned to Nazareth, “his native place,” a phrase that often is translated as “hometown.” Some say the phrase even means “his father’s house.” Nazareth’s importance is reinforced several times in the New Testament: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” say the demons cast out by Jesus (Mark 1:24, Luke 4:34); Jesus asked the guards who came to arrest him, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they said. (John 18:7); Peter in his preaching refers to Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth” three times (Acts 2:22, 3:6, and 4:10); and, after he is knocked off his horse and before he became Paul, Saul asks “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.”
So what happens when “Jesus of Nazareth” comes back to Nazareth, his boyhood home? The hometown crowd does not give him a ticker-tape welcome. No “Local Boy Makes Good” signs. Instead, the very fact that he is a local is a stumbling-block: “He can’t be that special, I was better than him in Hebrew class!” They knew what school he went to, what his first job was. They know his type. They have him stereotyped. So no miracles in Nazareth.
No miracles there!? Why not? Well, this is important. Mark doesn’t say Jesus would not work any miracle there – like maybe because he was peeved at his lukewarm reception – but that he could not. “Hey! We know this guy. His cousins are still here. He’s not so special.” Their lack of faith somehow frustrated God’s power in Jesus. They didn’t want a prophet showing up in this guy Jesus they grew up with, the son of a mere carpenter. They wanted something extraordinary, with Greek columns, and dramatic declarations that the oceans would stop rising, the planet begin to heal, and the nation be remade. Jesus was just too ordinary, too familiar to them to be taken seriously.
That Jesus spoke in the synagogue was not extraordinary. In Jesus’ time adult men took their turns explaining the Scriptures. What upset the crowd was that they saw Jesus as an upstart and their skepticism developed into outright rejection. Their questions were resentful: “Just who does he think he is?”
A word about “performing mighty deeds.” In Mark, being healed really means being freed from any number of spiritual, psychological and physical afflictions which the mindset of the time firmly believed were caused by demonic possession. We see Jesus tackling all that controls and dehumanizes people, separating them from God and from other people. What is remarkable here is the way Mark so bluntly and clearly reports Jesus’ inability to do any “deeds of power” for his hometown folks precisely because of their lack of faith. “He was amazed at their lack of faith.”
So if lack of faith jammed Jesus’ power to help, if we put it the other way around, faith allows God’s power to be effective in our lives. Growth in the Spirit, progress in the spiritual life, shows itself to the degree we recognize God more and more in the ordinary, everyday events of life. After all, the Son of God grew up human and was raised to adulthood in a town as ordinary, insignificant, and out of the way as Nazareth. Born human in backwater “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah … by no means least among the rulers of Judah,” raised in Nazareth. Sort of like born in Wallingford, raised in Norwalk, breaking out of the presumptions and expectations of the home crowd.